This weekend I experienced a new first: my first poetry festival, the Aldeburgh Festival. My, it was fun – and not just fun, but intensely inspirational. I had never seen so many poets in one place, and I was, admittedly, rather overwhelmed by it all when I first arrived. Aldeburgh is one of those pretty little seaside towns that has been taken over by holiday cottages and rich people. It’s on the beach, and the north sea is grey and rough. Unlike most of Wales’s beaches, Aldeburgh has shingles instead of sand, and when I walked on them on Friday morning the waves were doing victory rolls and sending spray and foam everywhere. My sea is never quite so dramatic as this, and it seemed like pathetic fallacy; I was both excited and slightly scared. I felt as though I was about to go swimming, and that I might well be out of my depth.
Luckily, I was with friends. I stayed in a little holiday cottage with the lovely poets Kim Moore, David Borrott, Maria Taylor and Holly Hopkins (yes, I’m name-dropping shamelessly – go and read their poetry and you’ll see why!) and had the slightly disconcerting experience of being introduced to lots of unfamiliar faces who had very familiar names. I spent the first day or so thinking ‘I know that name…’ and then opening and flicking through my internal filing system for the right card. Quite often when I realised who I was speaking to I had to suppress a gasp of recognition. It was a little uncanny. And I, as expected, was almost anonymous – although I occasionally felt myself the object of the odd curious glance. Who’s that young woman with the red hat? How does she know Kim Moore? But I was welcomed wholeheartedly; everyone I met was absolutely lovely, interested and interesting. By the second day, I had relaxed completely and was enjoying myself.
The events put on by the festival were fantastic. Not only were there readings, but craft talks (poets speaking about a particular literary technique that they liked) and close readings. The latter I recognised from my academic work – my favourite seminar activity is to sit down with my students and analyse closely a single poem. Poets such as Jonathan Edwards and Paula Bohince did this with aplomb; their readings were both clear and nuanced. You could tell that they are fantastic teachers as well as writers. Their enthusiasm and pleasure in the poems they had chosen was infectious. It made me want to convey my love of poetry when I teach my first year undergraduate students.
The main readings, too, were wonderful. My highlights included Bronwyn Lea – a poet I discovered in a New York bookshop back in April – reading from her book The Deep North, and Ellen Dore Watson, whose work was new to me – but so, so brilliant and true in a way that only poems can be true. Much of the work read was conversational in tone, and combined exuberance with tightly controlled verse. Jonathan Edwards’s poem ‘The Bloke in the Coffee Shop’ was one of these. When Anthony Wilson introduced it in his event that showcased the ‘new voices’ of the festival, he told us that when he first read it – in his kitchen – he burst out into a round of applause. And yes – it’s that good. Kathleen Jamie – after whom this blog is named – needs a mention, also. I had never heard her read, and though I knew that she is Scottish, the power of her guttural vowels and charismatic delivery made her words leap off the page in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. There’s nothing quite like live poetry.
Finally, my favourite reading – the one that left me grinning, on a high, wanting to write and read for the rest of my life – was by Brian Patten. He began with some of his children’s poetry – most winningly, ‘The Race to Get to Sleep’ – and went on to read his adult poems, which included some very moving elegies and ‘Inessential Things’, a beautiful poem that contains cats. At the end of his reading I felt like running up to him and throwing my arms around him for all the joy that he had given me, but thankfully, I controlled myself!
I had a fabulous time. I wrote on the train all the way home.